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Calculated decisions take little account of human factor

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

If anyone needed a reminder that professional rugby players are human too, Saturday served it up. A tale of three scrum halves. In the moments after Ruan Pienaar broke down during his live interview with BBC Northern Ireland, news broke that Ben Youngs had decided to withdraw from the Lions tour of New Zealand due to the serious illness of his sister-in-law.

Meanwhile, in a dressing-room 400km south of Belfast, Conor Murray sat with relief and elation having returned from an injury that had him fearing the worst.

Watching the tears stream from the South African's eyes as he made his lap of honour, flanked by his wife Monique and children Jean-Luc and Lemay, you had to wonder how it had come to this.

The vast majority of the 18,000 capacity crowd stayed behind to say goodbye, but the Pienaars didn't want to leave. No-one at Ulster wants them to leave. That decision was made elsewhere.

You wondered if David Nucifora was watching and what he made of it all. It was his call to block Ulster from issuing a fresh deal to the 33-year-old.

IRFU performance director Nucifora made the decision in a cold, calculated manner from his office in Ballsbridge.

Pienaar, so the reasoning goes, is blocking the path of an Irish-qualified scrum-half, meaning Joe Schmidt has less depth than he'd like. During the Springbok's seven-year stay in Belfast, Ulster have failed to develop a suitable heir to the throne and they are too reliant on their overseas import of advancing age. So in Nucifora's mind, Pienaar had to go.

While there is logic in those reasons, they don't account for the human side of the game.

Pienaar is a key leader for Ulster. He provides an example for the young backs, has helped bring Jackson through to become a Test out-half and he remains, with Murray, the best No 9 in the land.

The union need their provinces competing at the highest level and, while Pienaar's replacement John Cooney is undoubtedly a good player with the potential to deliver on his arrival from Connacht - the Dubliner is now saddled with the burden of replacing the most popular man at the Kingspan Stadium.

Given Pienaar's age and increased injury profile, there could have been scope to ease the transition but the decision was taken and the legendary No 9 moves on. But his years of service should have earned the right to choose his own destiny.

Up against him on Saturday was Isa Nacewa who was allowed to prolong his stay with Leinster beyond the end of next season.

Undoubtedly, the Aucklander contributes to the Leinster cause on and off the pitch just as Pienaar did, but he also can't play for his country and is older than the South African.

Ulster fans will point to inconsistencies but their complaints will likely fall on deaf ears.

Contextually, it is all dwarfed by the Youngs news. A contract or summer tour has nothing on the life-or-death issues the England scrum-half faced and he can't have taken his decision to withdraw from the Lions lightly.

And, in the cold world of professional sport, his announcement nudges Murray closer to a Test jersey.

It's not the way he would have wanted it, but the Munster No 9 will just be delighted to be back on the field playing and showing signs that his long, injury-enforced absence is over.

In Belfast, Pienaar wiped away the tears and waved goodbye to the place he's come to call home.

The door will remain open to him in future, but he should never have been shown it in the first place.

Belfast Telegraph

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